Summary: Book XII

Michael continues relating the story of the future of humankind to Adam. After the flood, humankind develops from a “second stock”: Noah and his family (XII.7). Humans now act more obediently to God than humans before the Flood, offering sacrifices from their flocks and fields. However, several generations later, a leader arrives with proud and ungodly ambitions. This upstart is Nimrod, a tyrant who forces many men under his rule. He constructs the Tower of Babel in an attempt to reach up to Heaven. As punishment, God decrees that men will now speak different languages and be unable to understand each other. Adam agrees with Michael that no one should have dominion over other people, who are by nature free. Michael qualifies this freedom: because of the fall, he says, men only have true liberty when they obey “right reason,” or reason tempered by conscience (XII.84). Still, Michael adds, it remains a great sin for one person to take away the liberty of another.

Continuing his story, Michael explains that God chooses Israel as the one nation to rise above the rest. He takes one person, Abraham, father of the Israelites, from a race that worships idols. At God’s command, Abraham sets off from his native land and travels to Canaan, the Promised Land. His descendants eventually move to Egypt, and become enslaved by Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt. Finally, a man named Moses is born, and he eventually leads the people out of Egypt, through the plagues brought down upon the Pharaoh. Michael tells how God allowed the Israelites to pass through the Red Sea, then closed the waters around the Pharaoh’s army, which had come to recapture the Israelites. The followers of Moses must travel through the desert to return to Canaan, but they survive with the help of God.

Adam is much relieved to hear that God will bless a portion of humankind, after having it cursed for so long. But he does not understand how all the laws given to these people can possibly be obeyed, or how the Israelites are to remain just before God. Michael replies that they cannot remain just, even if they obey the law, until a greater sacrifice is made. He explains that after generations, the Israelites will turn more and more to sin, until God decides to strengthen their enemies. When they repent, God will save them from these same enemies. After many different rulers, there will come a king named David, and from his descendants will eventually come a Messiah, or chosen one. This Messiah, also known as Jesus or the Son, will once again bring together Earth and Heaven. However, he will have to suffer for it: he shall be hated by many while he lives and will be distrusted, betrayed, and punished by death. However, the grave will not hold this Messiah for long, and rising up he will defeat both Sin and Death, and bruise the head of Satan.

His resurrection fulfills the prophecy about the Son finally punishing Satan through his sacrifice. Adam worries that the followers of Jesus will be persecuted, and Michael confirms that they will indeed be persecuted. However, the Archangel says, from Heaven the Messiah will send down the Holy Spirit to provide spiritual protection. But after the first followers die, corrupt leaders as well as good ones will enter the church. Thus those who genuinely follow the truth will still be prosecuted, laments Michael: the world will continue to accommodate evil and make it difficult for individuals to do good deeds. Finally, the Messiah will return a second time, to judge all humankind and reunite Heaven and Earth.

Adam is now more than comforted. He can hardly believe that out of his evil deed so much good will come. Now, however, it is time for him and Eve to leave Paradise. He comes down from the mountain with Michael. Eve awakens from her sleep and tells Adam that she has had an educating dream. Michael then leads the couple to the gate of Eden. There he stands with other angels, brandishing a sword of flame that will forever protect the entrance to Paradise. Slowly and tearfully, Adam and Eve turn away hand in hand with Michael, and wander out into a new world.

Analysis: Book XII

The discussion between Adam and Michael about Nimrod and the Tower of Babel provides Milton with an opportunity to express his fundamental ideas about political and religious freedom. Adam’s admonishment of Nimrod for trying to control other men is the most extreme example of Milton’s distrust of institutions and his absolute faith in the ability of the individual person to make his own decisions. Humankind’s freedom has already been restricted by the fall, but humankind can still obey reason if individuals think and act separately and for God. When individuals use reason in this way, then they possess true freedom. However, because of Adam’s sin, humankind will find it difficult to always follow reason; when an individual strays from God and from reason, he becomes a slave to passions and desires, and is thus not truly free at all, but becomes a slave to desire.

This paradox is the reason why Milton did not feel that total individual freedom, within the Church for example, would result in anarchy. Each person can act separately with reason and obey God. The rest of Michael’s discourse follows the biblical accounts closely. He progresses through the Old Testament, working his way through the most significant events until he comes to the line of King David, the line from which the Messiah would come. When Milton comes to Jesus’ birth, he works more of his own personal interpretations into the biblical story. When Adam asks Michael how the Israelites could possibly follow all of the laws that God gave them, which are contained in the four books following Genesis in the Bible, Milton begins a brief discussion of the Christian view of Old Testament law. Through the vision, Milton explains that law can identify and punish wrongdoing but cannot abolish or eradicate it completely. Without a proper remedy for Adam’s sin, attempts to obey God’s law only emphasize humankind’s sinfulness, according to Christian belief. This lack of a remedy is why the Israelites failed time and again to keep their covenant with God. When a worthy sacrifice is made, when Jesus offers himself on the cross, only then could humankind be capable of doing anything pleasing to God.

Read more about Milton’s views on politics and religion.

Adam brings up the pivotal concept of the fortunate fall, which asserts that the fall of humankind is fortunate for several reasons. Adam and Eve’s disobedience allows God to show his mercy and temperance in their punishments and his eternal providence toward humankind. This display of love and compassion, given through the Son, is a gift to humankind. Humankind must now experience pain and death, but it can also experience mercy, salvation, and grace in ways it would not have been able to had Adam and Eve not disobeyed. While humankind has fallen from grace, it can redeem and save itself through a continued devotion and obedience to God. The salvation of humankind, in the form of the Son’s (Jesus’) sacrifice and resurrection, can begin to restore humankind to its former state. In other words, good will come of sin and death, and humankind will eventually be rewarded. This fortunate result justifies God’s reasoning and explains his ultimate plan for humankind.

Read more about the fortunate fall as a theme.

Adam’s ability to perceive the fall as a fortunate one is an inherent paradox in Milton’s mixture of the human and the divine. Adam is to be judged according to what he did in his own time, and yet he is allowed to see all the future consequences of his actions in an instant. A mortal mind cannot readily accept this idea. Few Christian thinkers (certainly not Milton) would say that the sin of Adam and Eve was an unequivocally good thing. Rather, the fall and the resurrection are both intimate parts of God’s providence—he foresees them both and sees them outside of time, existing together. Humankind, on the other hand, must do its best in a temporal world, dealing with the decisions of the present. As Adam and Eve leave Paradise, they know that obedience to God and love for his creation can help humankind toward its salvation, and lead humankind toward regaining the Paradise that has been lost.

Read an essay about the major themes of Paradise Lost.